Technology is supposed to make it easier for everyone to live and work, but for the 10 million disabled people in the UK, many of whom find it difficult to use a conventional keyboard and screen, life is much harder than it need be.

Everyday business activities such as accessing information or using email are complicated or impossible for those with physical or sensory impairments, because websites and in-house systems cannot be adjusted to cater for their needs.

On the face of it these adjustments seem simple enough: the ability to make text bigger, change colours, have onscreen text read aloud or to plug in special hardware and software. In fact many alterations that disabled people need can be achieved just by changing Windows settings.

Wake-up call
However, many organisations have struggled to make their IT accessible. Until recently only organisations with a high proportion of disabled users, such as government departments and banks, took much account of the fact that their customers and employees might not be able to use a screen and keyboard unaided.

Accessible IT may sound like a good idea, but to many CIOs it looks complicated and expensive to provide for a comparatively small number of users. But things are changing. Firms increasingly recognise that the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act puts the onus on them to carry out “reasonable adjustments” to their websites and in-house systems to make them usable by everyone.

Improved and less expensive accessible technology makes it easier for even severely disabled people to access IT, and more difficult for IT departments to cite cost as a reason for not taking action. So far as expertise is concerned, there is an increasing number of accessibility specialists.

And there is pressure from a generation of tech-savvy older people determined to stay online and work into their 60s and beyond – one-third of disabled people are now between the ages of 50 and 64.

The business case for accessible IT is that companies without it are missing out on a market among disabled people worth at least £80bn per year; and passing up a hardworking and loyal addition to their workforce. The case though is being made more cogently than ever before.

In response, CIOs are taking on the accessibility agenda. Last year the Royal Mail , a public company with a long track record of catering for its disabled employees, put its money where its mouth is and paid for the publication of the IT directors’ guide to accessible IT, produced by the Information Technologists’ Company.

“There is a big opportunity for IT directors to take a lead on this issue,” explains Royal Mail Group’s enterprise IT director, Wendy Powney, who was behind the initiative. “You can ensure that accessibility is part of your policy. You can make certain that members of your department are aware of their responsibilities and enrol them in the process. You can talk to suppliers about the accessible systems you require.”

Royal Mail has set up a 20-strong diversity group, which has built accessibility into the company’s formal design processes. Behind the diversity group are individuals who have an interest in disability and can use their authority to get things done. However, Powney acknowledges the organisation still has some way to go, particularly in being able to get a fast turnaround on requests for special equipment and adaptations.

Business taskforce
More recently, a group of IT heads from a clutch of blue chip organisations held an inaugural meeting in London of the Business Taskforce on Accessible Technology, which aims to put the business case for accessible IT, influence regulators and lobby suppliers to improve the accessibility of their products.

A strategy for access:

 Draw up an accessibility policy that makes it clear to everyone involved in IT that they are obliged to make technology accessible and explains in outline how to go about it.
 Devise an accessibility checklist that enables IT service people and developers to identify important access issues when delivering services and designing new ones.
 Appoint someone to act as an accessibility champion.
 Ensure that people with disabilities know about and have access to appropriate technology assessments.
 Involve disabled people in all design activities, starting at the concept stage and going on through all phases of development.
 Have a procurement policy that specifies accessibility as a requirement in all hardware, software, networking and systems an organisation buys.
 Hire disabled people — developers will understand the issues much better through personal experience of disabled people.
 Work with other directors to communicate accessibility policy to line managers and staff.

Source: IT directors’ guide to accessible IT, Royal Mail Group 2007

The group, chaired by chief operating officer at HMRC, Steve Lamey, could provide a boost to the uptake of accessible IT with a heavyweight line-up that includes B&Q, BUPA, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Goldman Sachs, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Intercontinental Hotels, KPMG, Lloyds TSB, Royal Mail, Sainsbury’s and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

The taskforce is the brainchild of Susan Scott-Parker, head of theEmployers’ Forum on Disability (EFD), which represents some 400 companies in the UK.
“EFD’s job is to make it easier for companies to get it right in employing disabled people and serving disabled customers – accessible IT is crucial to that,” says Scott-Parker.

User viewpoint
“Our members are only just beginning to understand the procedures that allow disabled people to use their systems. Buying IT that is not accessible is like buying a car without wheels – it is no use. Our objective is to see IT accessibility positioned in the same way as IT security.”

Scott-Parker points to insurance company Legal & General’s experience in redesigning its website to make it more accessible. The move increased sales by 90 per cent, achieved a return on investment in 12 months and produced savings of £200,000 per year on site maintenance.

The lesson has not been lost on other organisations. Ford Motor Company, for example, set up a taskforce in January to look into website accessibility with a brief to revamp all the company’s internal sites by this autumn.

Meanwhile, the taskforce aims to spearhead work on improving IT by defining and communicating the business benefits of accessibility. The group wants to help CIOs develop practical corporate governance on accessibility and to work on producing better standards.

Accessibility standards are particularly important because there are few clear guidelines for CIOs at present. The World Wide Web Consortium has produced standards relating to website content accessibility although they are difficult to apply. There are no all encompassing standards.

The taskforce aims to plug the gap by circulating standards that its own members have developed. Members such as the DWP, Lloyds TSB and HMRC, which is currently reviewing the accessibility of its systems, already have considerable experience in developing inclusive IT.

One area that Scott-Parker hopes that the taskforce will also be able to make an impact is in boosting the training and accreditation of IT professionals. She wants to make it impossible to hire an IT person who doesn’t know how to make a system accessible.

Suppliers and regulators are also in the taskforce’s sights. “We want suppliers to do more to adapt their products to the needs of disabled people. It is a matter of raising our game on both sides,” she maintains. “We need to help suppliers to better meet the needs and expectations of their corporate clients.”

Many suppliers are already taking action. A group which includes Adobe, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Novell recently formed the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance to help make it easier for disabled people to plug devices such as screen readers, magnifiers and text-to-speech systems into their products.

Supplier reaction
Disability discrimination law in the UK focuses on employers, which are required to make adjustments. There is no equivalent requirement for suppliers to build accessibility into their systems, although many US companies may have already done so in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes a section insisting that all federal agencies provide adaptations.

That has not stopped some well-known suppliers from being pursued by disabled civil servants. In one recent case a blind employee of the State of Texas sued Oracle because he could not access information about his expenses from its systems.

The taskforce also wants to influence EU lawmakers so that they push accessibility standards more rigorously. “It is a case of some of the largest spenders (on IT) coming together to make sure that the regulations that are emerge are useful,” Scott-Parker explains.

Achieving accessible IT

Although most people have difficulty using IT occasionally, for a significant proportion of disabled people the barriers to accessing IT are so great that they need extra help.

Disability covers a wide range of impairments. Some people have sensory disabilities covering problems with sight, hearing and speech. Others are physically disabled. A surprisingly large group suffers from cognitive impairments that include dyslexia. And there are those who struggle with the debilitating effects of diseases, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

There is another growing band of people who experience discomfort using IT – those who suffer from repetitive strain injury (RSI), as a result of using a mouse, excessive keyboarding or sitting at a workstation incorrectly.

There is a wide variety of specialised hardware and software on the market, some of it, such as eyegaze software that tracks the movements of a user’s eyes or mice that cancel out hand tremors, is at the cutting edge of technology, but most accessible technology is more down-to-earth.

Indeed, accessibility is often a matter of setting up IT systems so that users can make their own adjustments. Investments in new IT systems also need to take account of accessibility. Technology such as client server computing can be incompatible with some assistive technology.

CIOs need to make sure that they know as much about the subject as possible. Major charities such as RNIB, RNID and AbilityNet have published a great deal about accessibility issues, and these offer a valuable source of guidance. There are also consultancies with specialist knowledge of accessibility.

Accessibility specialists welcome the taskforce. “A high-level initiative to wake up CIOs and suppliers could be a very significant development, although it depends on what happens next,” says Bill Fine, consultant at AbilityNet, a charity that provides information on accessible IT to employers. “CIOs need to help each other in this area.”

IT departments may have a steep learning curve on accessibility, but if efforts by a small group of pacemakers pay dividends then millions of people stand to benefit. The big question now is whether these leaders can persuade the rest to follow in their path.